Anti-gerrymandering group may team with GOP to tackle term limits

Voters Not Politicians leaders said they’ve met with Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, among other lawmakers, to discuss “good government reforms.” VNP spokeswoman Elizabeth Battiste told Bridge, “we’re just starting to have conversations about what that might look like.” (Bridge file photo)

LANSING – Efforts to reform Michigan’s decades-old term limits law may produce strange political bedfellows.

Voters Not Politicians, the citizen group behind last year’s successful ballot measure to end political gerrymandering, may team with GOP leaders whose party has benefited from some of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation on a 2020 ballot initiative to curb legislative term limits.

Also in the discussions: the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, whose executives led a group that paid consultants to draw districts to favor Republicans.

Voters Not Politicians leaders said they’ve met with Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, among other lawmakers, to discuss “good government reforms.” VNP spokeswoman Elizabeth Battiste told Bridge, “we’re just starting to have conversations about what that might look like.”

The group is also exploring reforms to end the "revolving door" that allows lawmakers to immediately become lobbyists after leaving office, extend the state's public records request law to include lawmakers and the governor and other measures "all aimed at restoring Michigan voters’ faith in our state and democracy," said Nancy Wang, executive director of VNP.

"We have spoken with many groups, including some lawmakers, who could move these reforms forward, and we will consider taking them to the ballot should that be necessary," Wang said in a statement.

Chamber CEO Rich Studley confirmed his group was also part of a recent brainstorming meeting that included several interested groups and individuals, but declined to name the other participants.

“There was a very preliminary, very general discussion about what if anything might be possible regarding term limits — not repeal, but some type of a revision or reform," he said. 

Short of eliminating term limits, potential reforms debated in the past include extending the length of terms or allowing lawmakers to serve all 14 years in a single chamber, which could give them more time to build relationships and develop expertise on policy committees. The political newsletter MIRS first wrote about on the meetings, and reported a possible plan may allow lawmakers to serve up to 20 combined years. 

Michigan is one of 15 states with legislative term limits, which were a popular reform in the early 1990s. In Michigan, lawmakers are limited to three two-year terms in the House and two four-year terms in the Senate, 14 years total. 

“Having the most severe term limits in the country, especially in the House, can make it really tough for newly elected lawmakers to get to know their colleagues, understand the process, then come up to speed on an issue and identify a solution,” Studley told Bridge. 

“Before you know it, especially in the House, they're running for re-election.”

Any changes to term limits, which are enshrined in the state Constitution, would require a public vote. The Legislature could put the question on the ballot with a two-thirds majority, or more than 425,000 voter signatures would need to be gathered. 

It would be a surprising alliance — the Michigan Republican Party and several prominent Republicans have two ongoing lawsuits seeking to shut down the redistricting commission championed by Voters Not Politicians. Voters last fall approved a ballot measure that takes power of drawing districts after the decennial census from politicians and gives it to a citizen commission.

The Michigan Chamber was the biggest backer of a group opposing the initiative, and also bankrolled redistricting efforts in 2011 that produced districts that a federal court this year ruled were drawn to favor Republicans.  

(Studley noted Tuesday that the chamber’s legal battle with Voters Not Politicians last year was “very respectful.”)

Shirkey has been a vocal critic of Michigan’s term limits, saying earlier this year he would pursue a ballot initiative to lengthen or eliminate the limits. Voters Not Politicians, meanwhile, has searched for an issue to champion after making national news last year for its unlikely grassroots victory.

“VNP has also expressed interest in the issue, and the majority leader has met and talked with the group,” said Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann. “He is willing to talk about changes to term limits with any interested party.”

Shirkey is not pushing any specific reform proposal now but is “just discussing possibilities with interested groups,” she added.

Michigan term limits were approved by 60 percent of the public in 1992 and polls have shown they remain popular. But policymakers and others contend the limits are a barrier to good government. Research from the non-partisan think tank the Citizens Research Council of Michigan found term limits have led to increased political polarization and lobbyist influence, and have not made the Legislature more diverse or made elections more competitive. 

Lawmakers also argue that the term limits stunt institutional knowledge: By the time legislators are savvy enough to make informed decisions and have fostered the relationships necessary to pass significant bills, they’re phased out of the chamber. That makes them even more vulnerable to special interests and lobbyists that oftentimes have more knowledge of complex issues than lawmakers do. 

A movement failed in 2010 to put term limits reform on the ballot, and supporters of the law argue it works just fine. 

Patrick Anderson, who helped author the 1992 term limits amendment, said he does not think voters will be "fooled" by what he said amounts to the "latest variation" on a long-running push to extend the caps. 

“Most of these ideas involve some variation on the following: (a) tell voters you're going to get tough on politicians, and then (b) give them free rein to stay in the same office for a decade or more," Anderson said.

He noted that Michigan has a far more diverse government since the reforms passed, electing for the first time women governors, attorneys general and secretaries of state.

“One of the reasons we wanted to have term limits in Michigan was to open the door for people who traditionally had a very difficult time getting a shot at running in an open seat," he said. “And on this one criteria, term limits has been a smashing success. We clearly opened a door."

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Tue, 10/22/2019 - 6:50pm

This is an unusual alliance, if they get enough signatures for the ballot they are going to have to come up with a campaign strategy to convince voters who don't like politicians in general to give them more time in office. Saying they don't have enough time to do the job right so please give us more time is going to be a real challenge to sell to the public. The opposition is going to point out all the things they have messed up in the past and now they want more time?

Tue, 10/22/2019 - 7:30pm

All good points, further can they show how legislative bodies without term limits are more effective, less influenced by lobbyists and any less partisan? Say, maybe the US congress? Fat chance!

Ben W. Washburn
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 10:55pm

If what you want is a government that has no long-term vision for the common good, then term limits make sense. They result in a perpetual seething mishmash of stalemate. The real challenge is to re-establish a government in which at least 2/3rds of us can support. That will not happen easily. It will take massive voluntary efforts to really make government work for us again. It will also take a widespread understanding of the array of private interests which weigh heavily against that outcome. This conflict has happened may times before, and it will not go away easily....

Wed, 10/23/2019 - 9:40am

"Stunt institutional growth". If you can't figure out in 6 or 8 years that what you're doing is not working, then maybe you were not fit for the job when you were first elected. Also, the people will give you instant feedback on whatever you are doing.

I do like the part about closing the revolving door from legislature to lobbyist. In fact that door should be welded shut so that if you were ever elected to the legislature, you would be prohibited from ever being a lobbyist, and vice-versa.

Thu, 10/24/2019 - 9:56am

As a local elected official, I can tell you from my own experience that it truly does take years to understand the issues and put forth meaningful plans for improvement. I have yet to meet another elected official who disputes this reality. We have set up our state house to fail due to the significant turnover every two years. Bottom line, it takes time to know the issues and build relationships. When I have to work with my legislators to advocate for my community, it takes a great deal of time to get them to understand the issues. And just when they start to understand, they are gone. Because of turnover, they truly do almost exactly do what their party and their lobbyists tell them to do, thus remaining in their partisan silos.

John Q. Public
Wed, 10/23/2019 - 12:15pm

A word of advice for VNP regarding dealing with those people: hire more lawyers. This is a ruse to open the door to screw you down the road.

Here's what I'm willing to vote for: serve in whatever chamber you want, but fourteen years is plenty. Also, if after having served in both chambers you have eligibility remaining, you have to sit out a term and refrain from lobbying while you sit. That is, if you serve four years in the House, then eight in the Senate and can't run for another Senate term because you have only two years of eligibility left, you can't run for one last House term unless you sit one out first.

Wed, 10/23/2019 - 12:52pm

They should get two terms and if they can't get their job done in that time out they go. No more time to become what Washington DC had become before thank God Trump was elected. We are SICK & TIRED of the corruption and longer term limits just give them more time to screw us over per the usual.

Janet Wagner
Thu, 10/24/2019 - 9:45am

Robin, you realize you're talking about a group of state legislators who, since 2010, have been the result of highly gerrymandered districts.
After the 2020 election, our legislative body will be more evenly distributed among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.
So are you implying that extending term limits for those who are currently benefitting from gerrymandered elections should NOT get extra time in their positions? That doesn't sound like an effective Republican talking point to me.

One Solution
Thu, 10/24/2019 - 12:52pm

Down with term limits. Elections limit terms.
Down with gerrymandering. The voters have spoken, now do it.
Down with lobbying after holding office, FOREVER.
Up with campaign finance reform.